NYFF at the Drive-In: How Rooftop Films Helped Save the City’s Most Revered Film Event

It took months of planning to salvage this year's festival. Here's how its organizers pulled it off with the help of a scrappy non-profit.
Queens Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York City, U.S., August 16, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Queens Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science in Queens

It was 24 hours before the New York Film Festival, and the opening night movie was playing in silence. On a 62-foot screen in the middle of the 188,000-square-foot field behind the New York Hall of Science in Queens, Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock” was screening ahead of its big premiere at the drive-in. Needless to say, it was a long way from the usual swanky Lincoln Center scene of Alice Tully Hall, and the soundcheck required a different approach.

One technician grabbed a radio and a pair of wireless headphones as he wandered the open field, making sure that the audio transmission from the movie would play well for the 200 cars expected to fill the space the next night. Rooftop Films artistic director Dan Nuxoll, who had spent the last several weeks sorting through the logistics of the event, watched the strange scene unfold. “We’ve worked with everyone — every park, everywhere you might possibly show a movie in New York City,” he said. “There was no guarantee any of this would be allowed.”

Most audiences will experience this year’s NYFF at home, much as those in Canada did for the Toronto International Film Festival, which blended drive-ins with theatrical events in addition to its own virtual offerings. In New York, where the plan to reopen theaters remains in limbo, drive-ins have become the only viable option for large-scale screening events. While Rooftop typically hosts crowded outdoor gatherings, the organization became a key partner in sorting out the logistics of this year’s NYFF, where three venues across the city will host some of the most exciting offerings from the lineup.

Nuxoll, who has worked for Rooftop for the duration of its 24-year existence, first met with New York Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez back in April as the pandemic took hold, with shutdowns already having begun. In the ensuing months, that potential partnership was bolstered by Rooftop’s work with the Museum of the Moving Image, which moved its newly acquired 4k DCP projector into Queen’s Corona Park for a series of drive-in screenings that began over the summer. The final arrangement between the festival and Rooftop settled on three locations — two screens at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, each of which could accommodate 80 vehicles, the Queens venue, and a third at the Bronx Zoo. The festival pays a flat fee to Rooftop for each venue and keeps the revenue from ticket sales.

Now Rooftop, a scrappy non-profit even in the best of times, has become central to solving a problem for New York’s most revered film event — and there may be more opportunities on the horizon. “Once COVID hit, a lot of festivals and organizations were reaching out about potentially doing stuff,” Nuxoll said. “A lot of inquiries were coming our way that wouldn’t be allowed, like music festivals. Not too many companies or corporations wanted to be the ones to put their necks out on the line, which is understandable.” The NYFF deal was finalized after Rooftop managed to host a series of successful drive-ins early in the summer. “Once we opened and they saw that everything was running well, it was just a done deal,” Nuxoll said. “I’m not a pandemic scientist, but it’s pretty clear that drive-ins are safe.”

It also gave NYFF the opportunity to consider its legacy. “We literally could not do the festival this year without Rooftop Films,” Hernandez said this week on IndieWire’s Screen Talk podcast. He noted that in the early ’70s, staffers at the Film Society of Lincoln Center would load a projector into a van for its “Movies in the Parks” program and show a wide range of cinema around the city. Rooftop “made it all possible, but this also takes us back to our roots,” Hernandez said.

The operation of the Queens location involves a distinct set of collaborators, as parking attendants corral cars into spaces around the wide-open site, while a small step-and-repeat has been set up behind the projector for introductions that can be beamed onto the screen. Digital Media Systems provided the screen, which can withstand weather conditions up to 30 mile-per-hour winds. In addition to supplying the projector and projectionists, MOMI also brought in a booker and print trafficker as well as assistance from its own programming team. But its biggest contribution was that 4k projector. “The idea that we’d bring out our 4k projector was stressful,” said MOMI curator of film Eric Hynes. “But honestly, it was not as violent or upsetting a process as I’d feared.”

Few drive-ins around the U.S. can afford such equipment, but MOMI’s Queens screenings — and the NYFF ones that followed — demanded it. The two organizations began working with the New York Hall of Science on weekly screenings last month. “The idea from the beginning was to go big and if it’s coming from us, it has to be high-quality,” Hynes said. Nuxoll shared his proposal with Hynes in May while talks with NYFF were underway. The screen and projection booth were eventually constructed from scratch. “The plans that Dan drew up early were shockingly accurate to what actually happened,” Hynes said. “The thing I would like to have come out of all this is a willingness for organizations to work together to make things happen. It’s a very precious community and has felt like things could just disappear at any moment. I love that people who all care about doing this for a living are working to keep it going.”

Rooftop Films’ Dan Nuxoll in the Queens projection booth

Once the NYFF deal came together, Nuxoll pursued 25 possible venues for drive-ins at the festival, scratching off various options from his list along the way. “I knew most of them would fall through,” he said. “Permitting is tricky, money is tricky, and almost all of the open spaces in New York City are owned by the city, so there are limitations on what you can do.” Then there was the prolonged process of getting people on the phone. “I knew the bureaucracy would be really difficult,” Nuxoll said, “but it was really, really hard. The department of buildings and the fire department can’t operate right when offices are closed. Knock on wood — it seems like we’re through all those things.”

Working with the Queens museum, the team convinced the city to take down two large lampposts just outside the field to make the screen stand out more against the night sky. They also got permission to access light switches to the tall lights in the field so they could easily turn them off ahead of showtime. During the tech check, Nuxoll walked across the field as “Lovers Rock” continued to play out, switching off the lamps and considering the limitations of the situation at hand. While the drive-in setup allowed NYFF to go on, it wasn’t a permanent solution for any of the parties involved. “Even in COVID times, you can’t make a profit on a drive-in, even when you’re selling out,” he said. “It costs money to build all this out.” But he threw himself into the NYFF assignment for other reasons. “We do consulting work for all types of organizations who host events,” he said. “That subsidizes our mission of supporting films we really care about. I wasn’t reinventing the wheel here. We just wanted to figure out how to show movies.”

Most drive-ins around the country showcase bigger movies, but NYFF’s lineup is filled with a range of arthouse titles, some of which benefit from the format more than others. “American Utopia,” the dazzling record of David Byrne’s Broadway show directed by Spike Lee, will be a hot ticket. Byrne and Lee are both expected to attend, and Sofia Coppola may turn up for “On the Rocks,” another expected crowdpleaser well-suited for the drive-in scene. But some of NYFF’s more daunting choices, such as the four-and-a-half hour Frederick Wiseman documentary “City Hall” or Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s talky three-hour-plus period piece “Malmkrog” simply couldn’t make the transition for practical reasons: Car batteries stall on most nights, and such running times would pretty much ensure that outcome across the board.

But plenty of daring cinematic experiences will screen in front of vehicles in the weeks ahead, including Tsai Ming-Liang’s non-narrative character study “Days” and “Gunda,” a wordless black-and-white documentary about the day in the life of a pig. Usually at NYFF, some restless audiences might revolt at the more challenging options. But Nuxoll said the drive-in setup complicated that outcome. “There’s not a lot of walkouts — or drive-outs — in general,” he said, noting the practical challenge of starting up a car and getting to the exit in the middle of a screening. “To some degree, people might actually be less likely to leave during a movie than they would be during a festival.”

At the same time, ecstatic screening reactions are harder to discern. “The thing I miss the most is that you can’t feel the audience reaction,” Nuxoll said. “If everyone is in their cars laughing their fucking heads off, you just don’t know.” The festival isn’t wasting people’s time: Q&As with talent were recorded ahead of the festival and will be made available as podcasts for audience members to experience in their cars on the drive home. Overall, he said, audiences seemed to be rolling with the unusual nature of the setup. “People are more chill,” he said. “They know things are different this time.”

The next night, cars streamed into the field on schedule. As Hernandez introduced the evening, cars honked their appreciation on cue. “Feel free to use your horn whenever you feel like, whenever you feel like sharing in the communal experience around this movie and around movies,” he said. Hernandez brought Nuxoll up for another round of honks, and after a pre-recorded introduction to the movie featuring NYFF director of programming Dennis Lim and Steve McQueen, “Lovers Rock” began. This time, everyone in a car was tuned in.

The movie contains a wide-range of vibant song-and-dance numbers, all featuring the reggae music celebrated by the British West Indian characters at its center, and each one was met with another round of honks. When the big set piece arrived — a five-minute rendition of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” sung a cappella by the entire cast — shouts of joy were audible across the field. As the movie ended, a few audience members milled about the field, dazed from the experience. “McQueen is so great at holding on moments that just work,” one moviegoer was overheard saying as he got into his car. “This almost makes up for no afterparty.”

The New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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